Eric Ledell Smith, Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian

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Eric Ledell Smith, Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian

I first learned about Bert Williams (1874-1922) from my father, who, as a youth growing up in rural Missouri, shared in the uproarious laughter of his family as they gathered around the victrola to listen to one of the renowned comedian's humorous songs. His most famous was `~Nobody," but there were many others. When the first major Williams biography, Nobody, by Ann Charters, was published in 1970, I bought a copy for my father. Eric Ledell Smith states in his preface to Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian that prior to Charters' book, the only other book-length work on Williams, Bert Williams -- Son of Laughter, an anthology of anecdotes and tributes edited by Mabel Rowland,was published in 1923.

As Smith skillfully explains in his meticulously researched biography, Williams, a member of a Barbadian immigrant family, achieved a phenomenal career. He was the first black superstar comedian, the first black to be regularly featured in a Broadway revue, "The Ziegfield Follies," the first major black star to be motion picture (in 1910), and, with his partner, George Walker (1873-1911), first notable black recording artist (in 1901). Williams, author or co-author of upwards of seventy songs, was loved nearly as much for his singing and song writing as for his comedy and pantomime. He managed the nearly unmanageable feat of appealing to both black and white audiences. He was the American entertainment industry's first great crossover success. It is difficult today to appreciate the extent of his popularity and influence; even the recent phenomenon of "The Cosby Show" would not truly compare. Nearly immediately after his death, however, the black community's pride in Williams began to turn to chagrin. He performed in blackface, and his stage persona was rooted in the stereotypes of the minstrel show. Theatre history all but forgot him.

Smith's primary goal in writing a new biography of Williams is to help provide a more definitive portrait of both Williams's life and his art within the context of the time in which he lived. The other biographies on Williams stressed his pain and frustration as, in the words of his friend and colleague W.C. Fields, "the funniest man I ever saw; the saddest man I ever knew." It is true that Williams's most fervent wish was to prove himself as a legitimate actor. At one point, the opportunity to do so nearly presented itself through an offer to do a straight play with the foremost legitimate producer of his time, David Belasco. Contractual entanglements with his manager prevented him from seizing it. It is also true that the racism built into this nation's social structure caused Williams to be subjected to countless large and small humiliations on nearly a daily basis, and that he was fully aware and internally or externally responsive to each one, though with much less intensity and militancy than George Walker. However, Williams frequently commented publicly on the injustices of racism, and through their musical comedies, In Dahomey, Abbysinia, and Bandanna Land, Williams and Walker struck against stereotyping by balancing their "Two Real Coons" comedy with portrayals of dignified, capable, intelligent black people.

Because the element of pathos was so prevalent in his comedy, Bert Williams was often thought of as pathetic. Smith ably shows that this is a misreading; Williams refused to live life as a victim. He was a sociable and socially conscious man who was active in his community and maintained a stable, loving relationship with his wife, Lottie Thompson Williams. …